Pitchers and catchers and predictions

I thought by now that the hurt I felt after leaving Nats Park in October would have subsided, but it hasn’t. The reality is this: The Nationals were probably the best team in the National League last year, challenged only by the Reds. Of course, both of them lost in the first round of the playoffs in excruciatingly painful fashion — the Reds’ collapse might have been even worse than the Nationals’, as a matter of fact — and now, great things are expected of them again.

The Nats are starting to report in Florida for spring training, and I don’t feel nearly as good as I did at this time last year. Given the choice of jettisoning Michael Morse or Adam LaRoche, I frankly would have tossed LaRoche. Morse is younger and hits for more power and average, and although LaRoche is a fantastic defensive first baseman, that’s one of the least important defensive positions in baseball. And LaRoche’s career stats indicate that an admittedly very good 2012 is about as good as you can expect from him.

The Nats also traded for a no-power, decent-speed, good-defense leadoff man in center fielder Denard Span, where he will replace a great-power, high-speed, good-defense-and-getting-better center fielder in Bryce Harper. Harper will move to right, where he’ll have fewer opportunities to bash into things, which the Nats feared would shorten his career (my first thought: Tell that to Willie Mays). Everyone expects Harper to make a big jump and become an absolutely elite baseball guy; given that he’s still only 20, that might be too much, too soon to expect.

Jayson Werth is only one year removed from a truly terrible season. And if Gio Gonzales doesn’t get suspended in a drug scandal, it’s still a lot to expect for him to repeat 2012’s success.

Stephen Strasburg was a very good pitcher last year, but not as good as the hype around him indicated. His ERA was over 3 and he was shut down earlier than planned last year after he started losing his stuff. Still, he *is* someone I suspect could be the National League’s best pitcher this year as his recovery from Tommy John surgery continues. And Jordan Zimmerman looks absolutely poised to join a short list of elite National League pitchers as well.

We’ll find out this year if Ross Detwiler is as good as he often showed he was last year, and picking up Dan Haren might have been the most sensible move the Nats made all winter. Put it all together, and the Nats’ starting corps is probably the deepest in baseball.

The bullpen looks loaded at first blush, although the team crapped all over Drew Storen after his hard-luck blown save ended the Nats’ 2012 season. Storen looked great at the end of the season after his return from surgery, and he missed winning the first playoff series by an inch at least three different times. But the Nats spent a mountain of money to get closer Rafael Soriano from the Yankees; Storen’s still around, though, as is Tyler Clippard, who had been made and measured by a lot of hitters by the end of last year. I’m not sure this will end well. It would not surprise me to see this bullpen disappoint and become the biggest negative surprise for the Nats.

So how good is this team? They’re the fashionable choice to win the National League. However, I don’t think they’ll win the East and they may not make the playoffs.

For the Nats to be a viable World Series threat, LaRoche will have to play at or near last year’s level, Harper will have to step up even more and/or the team must find a way to replace Morris’ power, the starting staff will have to be very good (it would be a shock if this did not happen) and the bullpen, which I think could have problems, will have to come through.

In short: I have serious questions about the offense and bullpen depth. Perhaps the Nats can still pull it off with quality starting pitching, a good closer and fantastic defense, which they absolutely should have. But it’s hard to be a perennial contender in the National League, and the East looks really competitive. In short: This year could be a downside surprise for Nats fans.

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